The Diplodocus Effect

You knew right off Mr. Ebersol was not from around here.
by Rob Hunter

The Diplodocus Effect

“...and enjoy your Fun-Time PlayPal.”

Hubert arrived in a cardboard box, the kind they used to mail painted turtles in when I was a kid sending in comic book coupons. Sally Murtaugh, my FedEx driver, pulled up one sunny May afternoon while I was exercising my electric hedge clippers. “Careful, Jim—you’ll cut the cord and kill us all.” We had dated in high school and she felt this gave her some room for comment.

“Thanks, Sally.” I switched the clippers off and held them at port arms.

She feigned relief and pulled out her clipboard. “Got something for you. You gonna raise chickens? I think there’s some zoning regulation...”

“Huh?”

She retrieved a carton from the back of the van and set it on the ground between us with her receipt book balanced on top.

“Burraow.” Jake, my Siamese, ambled over, looked at Sally and barfed up a hairball at her feet. Jake and I had lived alone together for going on twelve years.

“Cute,” she said. “Yours?”

“No, the cat’s.”

“Still the class clown. Here, sign for it.” Sally pushed the box forward with her toe, sidestepping Jake’s hairball. “You live like a hermit. Gonna end up an old guy with a cat. Unhealthy. And now...” Sally regarded the carton. Jake yawned.

Getting down on all fours, I pressed an ear against the box; there was a muted scuffling. Written in raised letters on the box’s top and sides was Caution Live Animals! That was all. No invoice, no shipping label, just some digital code on the box. There were air holes dotted in a regular pattern. “Harhuun,” said the box.

“Well, ‘Harhuun’ right back at you,” I said and poked my finger into an air hole. “Ow! Shit.” The box’s inhabitant had bitten me. As I shook my finger and hopped around on one foot in pain, the box spoke—a synthesized voice with a mechanical edge. “Thank you for shopping Fun-Time Liquidators, Pty. Ltd.,” it said. “And enjoy your Fun-Time PlayPal TM.”

Sally inspected my scrawl and, paperwork satisfied, she turned and walked back to her truck. “Gotta go. Bye now.” Bum, bum, bum, bum. Beethoven played—my cell phone. “You have a call,” said Sally as she gunned her engine.

“Hello...”

“Mr. Pickering?” Whether it was the connection or the caller’s vocal apparatus, the far party sounded as if he was in the shower gargling with shampoo. “Teaberry Balcom of Fun-Time Liquidators here. Terry, call me Terry...”

“Yes...”

“Are you lonely, Mr. Pickering? I ask this only as a simple matter of identification. A tractable pet brings joy into a lonely life, and shipping is free with the first order.” A fuzzy picture of a four-legged cartoon creature with a long neck and black and yellow stripes popped onto my phone’s tiny screen. It was tugging at the rope of a tire swing in which a pair of tow-headed toddlers giggled as they swung ever higher. “There is an adjunct software implant. Fun-Time PlayPals TM quickly acclimatize themselves to the usages of their host household. Such as sanitary considerations and the family grouping’s alpha hierarchy. You have no spouse or offspring, I see. So your PlayPal TM will obey you first, then your cat.”

“So Hubert comes toilet trained.” I had grabbed at a name, any name, for the thing in the box and came up with a least-favorite uncle.

“Hubert. You have named the diplodocus, then. An excellent choice, Mr. Pickering. A strict vegetarian, your diplodocus will clean eaves and downspouts and keep the lawn and plantings neat and tidy, all the while demonstrating (after a brief bonding period) a fierce protectivity toward the young of any species.”

The giggling twins faded to be replaced by a page of instructions: Care and Feeding. “Caution: your diplodocus will grow larger as it matures.”

“Ahh... larger,” I said.

“It is a dinosaur, Mr. Pickering.”

“Dinosaur my ass. Bullshit. Who is this?” No answer, just a prolonged gargling that might have been laughter. I dropped the phone into my pants pocket. Party or parties unknown were having one giant chuckle at my expense. I thought about Sally, now departing down the hill. She had been a great kisser in high school but not much for practical jokes. And never married—people wondered why. I wondered why. I had never gotten around to asking her, I guess. I tried to remember just why we had broken up.

I sat on the porch steps and regarded the carton. “Haruumph,” it said. The box began rocking back and forth as if its contents wanted to be on the outside with me. Jake, the Siamese, assumed the pose of a feral predator creeping in high grass. He batted the box and a mouthful of tiny teeth shot out of an air hole and nipped him. Jake gave a yowl and took a swipe that left claw marks in the cardboard as he departed up a rose trellis.

“All right. That’s enough. Stand back,” I said and flicked on my electric hedge trimmers. At the sound the box stopped rocking as Jake looked down from what he figured was a safe distance. I raised the hedge trimmer above my head and came down like a ninja warrior filleting a tuna and sliced one end off the carton. I felt a pang of regret that I might have hurt whatever was in there and leaned down for a peek. “Haruumph..?” Two bright blue eyes peered cautiously up at me. The head was that of some kind of baby lizard, striped black and yellow, but there the lizard resemblance ended. The thing was smart; you could see it in the eyes. There was a self-awareness you didn’t get from your everyday pet store gecko. I could swear it was smiling.

“Uh... Hello,” I said. And the thing waddled over to have its neck scratched.

*  *  *

The personage on the screen wore a three-eared jester’s cap with jingling bells at the points. “Mr. Pickering?” The voice wavered—the rippling of a mountain stream over a bed of polished pebbles.

“Ayuh.”

The head was painted white and wobbled at the end of a spring. There was a rude noise. “Teaberry Balcom here. Of Fun-Time Liquidators?”

“My pet is fine.”

“I am afraid there has been a mistake; your Fun-Time PlayPal TM has been recalled. We have dispatched a conciliator. So sorry.” Dingding. The doorbell. “Mr. Ebersol, our service representative should be at your door about now. Open it, please.” The screen flipped over and returned with a graphic of the PlayPal TM fetching a flying object that looked like a Frisbee. “A diplodocus has been ruled inappropriate for your parallelism.” He cleared his throat. “A time anomaly...” Teaberry Balcom was after results. Results which I was not about to give him.

Dingding. Dingding. Dingding. “Alright, I’m coming.” I opened the door. “Oops.”

You knew right off Mr. Ebersol was not from around here. That he was a strong-arm guy, rouged cheeks and cupid’s bow mouth notwithstanding, I did not doubt. His titanium white makeup and the knob on top of his head reminded me of Japanese theater characters. I nicknamed him Kabuki Boy.

“James Pickering?” asked the knob.

“Speaking. You are a Kabuki character.”

The face consulted an official-looking document. “No, I am Mr. Ebersol.” He sounded confused, but moved right along with the business at hand. “Hand over your PlayPal TM,” he scowled. There was a tiny crash of thunder as a miniature ecosystem formed up over his head. Kabuki Boy carried his own private climate. Interesting, he was the interstitial equivalent of a repo man. And he wanted Hubert back.

“Not a chance,” I replied.

“Oh, dear. I’ll have to check with the Home Office.” He/she/it sucked him/her/itself upwards, rolling up his feet, legs and body into the black umbrella-shaped protuberance that covered his head. He hovered, then fell to the linoleum where he waffled in ever-decreasing arcs—settling in like a flipped half-dollar on a mahogany bar during a rowdy game of pogs.

“And keep the change,” I said. No answer. I must have embarrassed him. I figured what the hell and whistled up Hubert for some Frisbee tosses in the yard. With a delighted trumpet he stretched and rose from his usual perch on the divan and galloped through the open screen door.

Hubert tired easily; he was only a baby. Ten minutes of Frisbee and he was ready for lunch and another nap. We had taken out a patch of prize hollyhocks and one corner of the garage on a missed catch. Then we went back into the kitchen, where Kabuki Boy was waiting.

“You have surely heard of the Butterfly Effect?”

“I have read the story. Ray Bradbury—science fiction, and the operative word is fiction. The future is changed drastically by a teeny-tiny adjustment in the past.” I opened a few cans of tuna and dumped the contents over a quart of Jake’s kibble. Hubert wolfed it down and curled up again. “Hubert stays.”

“Ah, yes. But to continue. There’s been a mistake, Mr. Pickering, and you can’t ruin my chance for a promotion while in the process erasing billions upon billions of sentient creatures as yet unborn.”

“Try me,” I said. Beethoven played somewhere far-away, like at the bottom of a well. I reached for my cell phone and couldn’t find it.

“The outcomes of the Butterfly Effect are myriad—more than you may tick off on your twelve toes, Mr. Pickering. May I interpret your utterance to signify an indifference to your progeny? Untold generations will curse your name.”

“Pickering. Jim Pickering. As long as they spell it right. And that’s ten toes,” I said. “We’re different, I know.” Kabuki Boy choked back a sob. “Your paint is running; you are ruining your mascara. And no, I don’t care. My diplodocus and I are getting along just fine. Go away.”

“Thank you and have a nice day.” Kabuki Boy again rolled up into his umbrella hat like a runaway window shade. I flipped a digital salute to where he had been. He returned as a bunch of grapes. “Your idiom somehow escapes me,” said the grapes. “The finger thing? No matter, I will not be going away.”

Kabuki Boy reappeared to hang in midair, rocking gently from side to side. The hat shimmered. The diplodocus purred. Urk, urk. Jake threw up a hair ball.

“Your domestic partner has presented me with a gift. I am sincerely touched. However, regulations state...”

“It’s cat barf. It’s there free for anyone who happens by. Don’t feel special.”

Kabuki Boy tried not to look hurt, then composed himself. “Reasonableness. Sweet reasonableness—this is all we ask. I mean... you have no right... well you do have a right but there is no precedent, I am afraid.” He paused to consult a guide book extracted from the hat. “I am empowered to offer you a replacement, an upgrade at no extra charge. Trans-dimensional litigations are costly and time-consuming. We will have to wait for version 6.8. Perhaps a century, time to find a suitable partner for procreation and gestation should you wish. This is said to be a favorite pastime among your species: a next generation of ratepayers in case of a lawsuit.”

“You seem to possess a slippery sense of justice,” I said.

“Well, yes... Justice is slippery. A catalog of butterflies and banana peels as it were.”

The diplodocus stretched out its neck to give the hair ball a nudge. He rolled it over to me and looked up hopefully. “He wants to play,” said Kabuki Boy.

Urk, urk. Hubert’s neck was stretched out—three, maybe four feet. Yellow stripes undulated against a field of black as he tried to work some offending particle up and out from its gizzard. A lump the size of a cell phone traveled along with the peristaltic flow as Hubert’s neck bobbed and weaved. Hubert opened his jaws a full 180 degrees and deposited my missing phone directly at my feet. Beethoven again.

“Yello...”

“Ah, Mr. Pickering...” Teaberry Balcom explained, picking up where Kabuki Boy had left off. “There will be no lawsuit; you may feel secure in your property. Except for the diplodocus. Things are different where you are, Mr. Pickering. I also do not know if our Mr. Ebersol is unusual for your world or relatively standard. You will have to let me know.”

“If you are where you are and I am here why would you care? Sorry, but Hubert and I have bonded. He stays. You are spot-on about Kabuki Boy not blending in though.”

“Yes. We may salvage something out of the wreckage of the moment.” The connection sizzled with some kind of interference. “The window is closing, I fear. If the situation is as you say, it is too late. We shall have to act fast. We may yet save the known universe; you will have to trust me. You do have the time?”

I checked my watch. “3:56,” I said. “I saw this in a movie once,” I said. “About soldiers who before a big battle wrote their names on a bottle of champagne...”

“Movie...” said Kabuki Boy and Teaberry Balcom simultaneously.

“Like a book except it’s a picture book,” I said. They seemed to be satisfied with that. “Oh yes... the champagne? The last man left alive gets to drink it.”

“Ahem...” Teaberry Balcom was silent except for the sizzling connection. “This is a grownup business, Mr. Pickering. I at first sensed that as a joke.” The gargling picked up in intensity. “But perhaps we have underestimated you. I am the Eschaton, a trans-dimensional being at the end of time,” said Teaberry Balcom.

“Wow.” Apparently this meant something to Teaberry Balcom. Maybe he was going to be the last man out. “You and all your relatives look like Mr. Ebersol then.” I said.

The personage on the screen nodded, “Pretty much,” he said. Teaberry held up what appeared to be a marble. “Look at this,” he said.

“It’s a marble,” I said, “...an aggie.” The marble’s surface shifted as it twirled between Teaberry’s fingers.

“...and now a cat’s-eye,” I said weakly.

“This is a universe, Jim Pickering. Notice the singular. Not universes plural, universe singular. Ahh... this universe. You are at my mercy.”

He held the marble between a thumb and forefinger. He squeezed; the marble dripped like an overripe grape. There was a roll of distant thunder and an aurora borealis blazed in the cloudless midday sky. “Oops, too tight,” he said.

“Hold on a minute. This ‘trans-dimensional being’ stuff. That means you’re pretty much like a god, right? Then how come you have to use FedEx to deliver your stuff?”

“Competitive bidding.”

“Oh.”

*  *  *

“Hiya, Jim.” Sally Murtaugh leaped down from her truck smelling like patchouli and lilac water: slimmed down here and with rounded blandishments there, she didn’t look like last week. She looked great—better than she had in high school where the two of us were almost an item. Sally’s skin glowed with a honeyed translucence.

“Uh... Sally?” I thought of plastic surgery but this early there should still be bandages. My one-time girlfriend was a nymph stepped right off a club soda label to give us less privileged mortals a glimpse of glory.

“Why Jim Pickering—you’re staring.”

“You’ve changed; you are; you are... I mean, it’s only been a week since I’ve seen you, Sally. How...” A medallion swung at her throat. It was Teaberry Balcom’s marble.

A Beethoven encore and Teaberry the trans-dimensional being was on the phone. “She doesn’t remember a thing. A nip here and a tuck there. Like it?”

I liked it. Sally threw her arms around my neck and delivered a deep, lingering kiss. “Jim, you old sillyboots. We were wrestling on the porch swing. I hit my head... remember? All is forgiven.” She effortlessly whipped up the corrugated steel back of the FedEx truck and handed down a cardboard box with air holes. Live Animals. There was scrabbling and a joyous yelp as Sally opened the box and lifted out a bewildered-looking puppy. It blinked against the sudden light. “Hubert, say Hi to Jim.” The puppy ambled over and took a nibble at my shoelaces.

Jake viewed the newcomer suspiciously. I waited for his Urk, urk. None was forthcoming.

“Hubert?” I asked.

“A cocker spaniel. A good name. Come on in the house, darling. Dinner is waiting.”

copyright 2010, 2015 Rob Hunter

The Diplodocus Effect  was first published in the March 2010 issue of Residential Aliens, Lyn Perry, editor.

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